David Decker: Seek first to understand: A lesson from an unattractive owl

David Decker
Special to The Newton Kansan

As I stroll down the path of life, I am amazed where I find lessons in wisdom. A typical setting, experience, or everyday object can bring new insight and understanding in the right context. These lessons can be applied to other facets of our relationships and influence our view of the world if we are willing to observe. As I contemplate the discussion underway in our school districts on the merit of continuing sports and activities in the COVID environment, there are plenty of opportunities to apply life lessons, and possibly even learn some new ones. I am reminded of a lesson I once learned from a most peculiar source.

If you were to visit my home, besides my ever relaxing dog sprawled out in the middle of the living room, you might notice a rather odd item in a prominent position near the fireplace. It is an owl. Not a real owl, or even a cute owl. No, it is an ugly little thing that is missing feathers, possibly an eyeball, and has other ailments. For years this owl has popped up in various places throughout our home. I have hidden it in drawers, tried to get rid of it in yard sales, and even “accidentally” thrown it away, yet it persists.

Finally, after one of the many reappearances of my cycloptic feathered friend, I asked my wife why this seemingly insignificant object kept being saved. She shared an origin story that I witnessed but that had fled entirely from my memory. You see, when our daughter was only 6 years old, she had given the owl to my wife for Mother’s Day. My daughter had used her “tickets” for good behavior and purchased the owl from her school store. Rather than pick out a cool toy, awesome erasers, or a snack, she chose this gift for her mom. It was the first gift from our daughter that neither one of us knew anything about as her parents. For my wife, it represented the selfless heart of her child; for me, it was one less gift I had to buy and say it was from the kids (just kidding, maybe). Due to this symbolism, the owl could transcend aesthetics, functionality, and reason to find itself among our most guarded family treasures.

The lesson I learned was clear; I had been so concerned with ridding my house of the owl that I had failed to see the beauty it represented. I wanted others to see my perspective and was uncaring of theirs until I took the time to ask questions. I should have used the wisdom readily available from Francis of Assisi (c. 1182-1226) or, in more recent time, Stephen Covey (1932-2012), who suggests that it is best to seek to understand before we aim to be understood.

So what does this have to do with sports and activities? Everything!

Whether a parent and their child are sharing in the experience of a choir, dance, drama, debate, forensics, or in the athletic competitions of football or volleyball, there is something much more valuable than the mere activity taking place. Within the environment that these activities create, parents and children engage and see each other in new and meaningful ways. A daughter may demonstrate perseverance on her volleyball team, or a son may demonstrate courage by taking on a difficult stance in a debate. Both examples show growth and the development of traits that would be difficult to teach in other settings. Likewise, the parent who may not help a child with calculus can advise on being a good teammate or handling the pressure.

The good that these activities bring to the development of the child goes beyond hypothetical examples. Studies show that students who participate in activities are more successful in school. In one study, Dr. Jason Smith (2007) at the University of Alabama in Huntsville noted that students involved in extracurricular activities graduate more than 87% of the time than other students who graduated at a rate of 70%.

While there is no denying the risks in our current environment with COVID-19, we must recognize that coaches, athletic directors, teachers, and others are taking precautions to minimize danger. Further, we must allow parents and students to make choices that we will respect is theirs to make. My experience with the owl and the tiny bit of wisdom it shed (if you choose to use it) is to understand the situation from students and parents' perspective before pushing our own ideals.

— David Decker lives in Newton with his family of five and serves as the director of finance for USD 373. He can be reached at